All the leaves are brown, and the skies are gray. November is here, and so is the most excellent 3rd i, or the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival. In its seventh year, 3rd i has become one of the must-go film festivals in the Bay Area, where you can catch up with outstanding selections from the "shorts, documentaries, and feature films from South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora, including India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Australia, Canada, Germany, UK and the USA." The great strength of this festival is its generous attention to independent works, while including classics and crowd-pleasing Bollywood, in an era when only the latter will guarantee a full house at the Castro Theatre. The festival opens at the Roxie Theater Thursday and Friday, November 5-6, then moves to the Castro through the weekend of November 7-8.
This year in previewing the festival I suspect I missed out on the crowd pleasers, which at any rate I hope to see on a bigger screen. I did see a number of documentaries—which tend to be my favorite—that I would enthusiastically recommend. I wasn't able to screen Yes Madam, Sir, whose topic—India's first policewoman—fascinated me. And I'm saving the 1960 classic Full Moon (Chaudhvin ka Chand), starring the legendary Guru Dutt, for the Castro screening on Saturday noon.
Supermen of Malegaon (India: Faiza Ahmad Khan, 2007)—In the textile town of Malegaon northeast of Mumbai, when the power looms screech to a halt and the moviegoers mass around the iron gates of the movie theater, the theater staff unlock the gates and leap out of the way as a tsunami of spectators flood in for the first Friday screening. In this movie-mad town you can get a Shahrukh Khan haircut for 101 rupees, while a Sanjay Dutt cut costs 151 rupees because there's "more hair at the back." The Muslim majority of the town makes the films in this "Mollywood" of video parlors, homemade sequels and movie parodies. Shaikh Nasir, owner of a clothing store that used to be a video parlor, recalls his no-budget local-dialect parody of Sholay that was a huge success in Malegaon. This breezy, hilarious film documents the pre-production and shooting phases of his latest work, a localized parody of Superman. Two guys under the green-screen sheet hold up the super-skinny, horizontal Shafique in his baggy Superman costume as he mimes flying through the air, fists shooting out before him. Like any Bollywood star, he's got a busy personal life: he drops a bomb on his director by letting his wedding rituals interfere with the shooting schedule. The small-pond diva complains that Malegaon's bad water cakes up her makeup and keeps the crew waiting as she chats on her cell phone. The camera falls into the river and has to be repaired in Indore.
At the end a few clips from the finished product Superman of Malegaon leave you wishing for more from this homegrown film industry. Slake your parody-thirst with the late-night screening of Quick Gun Murugun: Misadventures of an Indian Cowboy (India: Shashank Ghosh, 2009), which promises a bigger-budget, time-traveling Tamil take on the "sambar Western" that has been necessitating extra screenings at film festivals around the world.
Warrior Boyz (Canada: Baljit Sangra, 2008)—In trying to account for the distressing one hundred-plus death toll among young Punjabi/Sikh men due to gang violence in the Vancouver area, the filmmaker talks to three survivors—15-year-old Tanvir, 18-year-old Vicky and ex-con Jagdeep. In a few minutes we become surrogate parents of the most vulnerable Tanvir, kicked out of school and his family for holding firearms and drugs, seeking role models in all the wrong places, forced to carry a bat that his father thinks is for baseball. Subtitles make intelligible his mumbling, but not his strained rationalizations for earning respect among thugs who use him to sell drugs. The seen-it-all, politically aware Jagdeep provides the ethnic subtext of the violence: the need to stand up against the systemic racism and xenophobia aimed at South Asians, and the young men's out-of-context perverting of their own origins as Sikh soldier-saints obliged to fight in the service of humanity. Director Baljit Sangra is scheduled to attend the screening and, it's hoped, update us on better news about Tanvir's prospects for a decent life.
Iron Eaters (Bangladesh/Germany: Shaheen Dill-Riaz, 2008)—A decent life is the least of a laborer's challenges in this amazing documentary, shot in the Bangladeshi seaport of Chittagong, where the coastline provides an ideal location for the grounding of huge ships destined to be painstakingly taken apart by manual laborers. These workers are men, some young teenagers, forced out of their rice-farmer occupations up north to engage in a job that is potentially lethal in literally every step they take (without shoes): pulling heavy cables to shore in foot-deep mud among rusting steel plates, breaking up metal with primitive tools, and exposing oneself to fire, flying debris and falls from great heights—and perhaps worst of all, not being paid for it. While the spectacular long shots of behemoth vessels dwarfing the ant-like laborers inspire awe, the day-to-day negotiations of work leaders with middlemen and company owners simply to get paid provoke outrage on behalf of these likable yet desperate working men.
Searching For Sandeep (Australia: Poppy Stockell, 2007)—The boyish Poppy, a white lesbian in Sydney, decides to find a girlfriend online. In short order she's chatting with, and falling for, Sandeep, an Anglo-Indian woman who is sure she's a lesbian but has had no experience, never had an orgasm and hasn't come out to anyone—not even her four sisters and certainly not her conservative parents. (A holy man bewilders Sandeep's deep-in-denial mother by saying that her daughter is "with someone.") Still, Poppy reasons, there must be something between two women who both want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and love to eat saag paneer. Through the well-worn technique of closet (literal as well as figurative in Sandeep's case) video diaries, we ride along as the budding couple negotiate their first physical meeting on holiday in Thailand, the inevitable lonely return to their separate countries, and Poppy's risky decision to relocate to London to be closer to the woman she loves. In the meantime Sandeep's sisters peek at her text messages and confirm that she's gay. Anticipation, even dread, mount as the time comes for Poppy to meet Sandeep's reluctant parents, at which point we're thoroughly invested in the success of this romance. There's something deeply real about a mother who can't commit to visiting (and therefore acknowledging) the couple in their home, but who gives them plenty of mango pickle as a sour blessing.
Mad, Sad & Bad (UK: Avie Luthra, 2008)—I have to say this film was underwhelming despite my eager anticipation to see another Avie Luthra production. It's a "quirky" comedy about three Anglo-Indian siblings and their alcoholic drama queen of a mother, whose voiceover narration opens the film as she lies in her coffin ("definitely a low point"). We're sent back to a time before her death when her three grown children are struggling with problems in their relationships. Mum adores her elder son the psychiatrist despite his being a vicious, sex-addicted jerk. She disdains her younger son, a mediocre cable-TV "shitcom" writer who aspires to opera. And she torments her fortysomething single daughter, who yearns for a child without the necessary intermediate steps of moving out of the house and starting a relationship with a man. In the weeks before Mum's death the siblings experience rejection (even by a dating service), breakups, awkward meals, embarrassing interrogations and cheese epiphanies. I found the musical score too conspicuous and cheery, the characters too morose to warrant interest, and the storylines flat and straining for humor. In the role of the opportunistic wife of a rich undertaker, Ayesha Dharker, the eponymous heroine in Santosh Sivan's The Terrorist (1999), steals every scene she's in just by widening her eyes. I do like how Mum justifies throwing her daughter out of the house: "When I was your age I had a home of my own, three children and a husband who drank too much. You don't get that with spoonfeeding." But while that punchline instantly brings color to its character, other lines promise much and fail to deliver.
Children of the Pyre (India: Rajesh S. Jala, 2008)—Of the films I had a chance to sample, this one commanded the most fascination with its subject matter and manner of treatment. Winner of best documentary awards at Montreal and Sao Paulo 2008, Rajesh S. Jala's astonishingly beautiful film is set at the Manikarnika cremation ground in Varanasi, the oldest, busiest and most sacred cremation site in India. As many as 150 corpses are reduced to bones and ash here every day, in the Hindu belief that the departed soul achieves salvation, or moksha, as a result. The seven boys profiled in the film, ranging in age from 9 to 14, are of the Dom untouchable community whose full-time job—they don't attend school—is to stoke the fires, getting the bodies to burn as expeditiously as possible. Between pokes at the flaming logs, they snatch away the colorful burial shrouds to sell and pocket the proceeds. Despite their playful and callous demeanor, these kids are desperately trying to make a living in harrowing conditions: surrounded by charred corpses and accustomed to the stench and smoke of burning flesh and unending hours of 100-degree-plus temperatures. Unlike other kids, when they wake from a nightmare they're still surrounded by cadavers. The older workers yell at them and treat them no differently from the stray dogs that hang around the site. Some of their fathers are drunken abusers.
Don't let the disclaimer about "disturbing images" make you leave your seat or, God forbid, not show up at all. The burning bodies are insensate, and they're treated for the most part with respect. If you keep in mind that they're only shells being burned off for their souls to take flight, the horror abates. There are even moments of transcendence like those I've found in fictional films like The Harp of Burma and Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left For the East? The ethereally lovely song "Ud Jayega" that closes the film put me in a kind of tearful ecstasy that stayed with me for hours. But the horror that remains is the lives of these children, who endure with the help of thick skins, ganja, gutka (a chewing tobacco containing betelnut) and gallows humor. There happens to be a dance sequence near the end in which one of the boys shows surprising skill, but there's no Slumdog Millionaire-style happy ending in store for these kids.
Cross-published on Twitch. For more information and tickets, go to 3rd i's website.